Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.


The best prologues don’t explain or set up the story, they enhance it.

Prologues tend to have a bad reputation—for good reason. Too many are poorly written. Many agents and editors say to avoid them altogether, simply because they’ve seen too many bad ones. Some readers will tell you they don’t even read prologues because they don’t expect them to add anything to the story. Can you imagine? The opening to your book—and a reader chooses to skip it? Agh!

So when should you use a prologue? You’ll hear many state the “necessity” rule: “Don’t use a prologue unless the story absolutely requires it.” That’s the wrong approach. Far too many authors will argue their story does require one: “My readers won’t understand/empathize with the character if I don’t add these pages.” If this is your reason for adding a prologue—don’t. Fix the weaknesses in your first chapter instead. In fact, don’t even consider using a prologue until your first chapter is a strong opening on its own. Most of the time, when you’ve accomplished that, the temptation to add a prologue goes away.

The best prologues don’t explain or set up the story, they enhance it. They add some sort of intrigue or emotion. Or they set the tone in a unique way.

When you do use a prologue, follow these two general principles:

1. It should be (A) compelling, and (B) short .

2. It should be removed from the main story by either time or space.

In all generalities there are exceptions. But let’s not argue those quite yet. First let’s establish these basics for a good prologue.


There is no exception to this one. Think of a prologue not as explanation or exposition of what’s to come but as what it is: the opening for your novel. We tend to forget how critical that opening is. When you sit down to write a story, picture the reluctant buyer in the bookstore who’s never heard of you. That’s the most critical person you’re writing the opening for, not the readers who already know you and like your work. The typical browser scenario goes like this:

1. Spots your novel. Something about the cover/title makes her pick it off the shelf. (This is why covers and titles are so important.)
2. Turns book over, reads back cover copy. (Better be written well.) If she likes it . . .

3. Opens book. Reads opening line. (This is why you want a strong one.) If it’s good . . .

4. Reads paragraph. If that’s compelling . . .

5. Reads first page. If that’s really good . . .

6. Buys book.

This whole browsing time? Around thirty to sixty seconds.

Is the opening to your prologue compelling enough to sell your book to that browser? Is that critical first page really where you want to dump a bunch of backstory that “sets up” your first chapter?

If you use a prologue, it needs to thrum with excitement of some sort. It can be a high action scene. It can be an outwardly quiet scene, but intense in emotion. It can even be mere character narrative, but the voice has to absolutely grab the reader’s attention. The point is to capture the reader’s imagination not give information. Don’t think in terms of answering questions in your opening. Think in terms of raising questions. Questions keep the reader turning pages.


The very word prologue signals the reader that this isn’t part of the main story.

Let’s say the browser buys your book. The back cover has laid out the premise. The premise contains the inciting incident—the first major point of conflict that kicks off the story. Your reader begins your novel, knowing this incident is going to occur—and he’s waiting for it. He also knows, simply from reading novels over the years, that the prologue isn’t likely to contain this incident. He’s gunning to see the real story kick off—and he may not wait all that long. (Some readers have more patience than others. Women’s fiction readers in general will allow more time. Suspense readers are notoriously impatient—they want havoc wreaked, and they want it wreaked now.)

If a prologue stretches on for pages, the reader is thinking, “Sheesh, and I haven’t even started the first chapter yet. What if that first chapter takes awhile to get to the inciting incident?” He could find himself too bored to continue. And even if he does keep reading, he’s likely to think, “Man, slow start. Sure hope it picks up.”

You may have read some long prologues that you liked. That’s fine. Doesn’t mean you should try it. It’s tricky enough writing a prologue that works in the first place. It gets even trickier when you write a long one.

Next month we’ll take up Point #2.

Read the Reviews for Dark Pursuit

Dark Pursuit